Outlining doesn’t have to be complicated. In this post we’ll explore how outlining can make you a better, faster writer.
Writing out what you want to write about may seem restrictive, even counterintuitive, but it can be quite liberating.
Whether you’re a seasoned author or just starting out on your writing journey, a well-crafted outline can not only bring cohesion to your story, but it can also increase your word count.
Everyone can benefit from a little foresight in knowing what to write.
In this approach, we’ll explore a method so simple and flexible, you’ll be aching to try it. This is very customizable. You can do as much or as little as you want.
Step 1 – The Big and Not-So-Big Ideas
In the first step, write out all your ideas about your story. It doesn’t have to be coherent. It can be vague. It can be messy. In no particular order, braindump your story. This gives you The freedom to explore various possibilities without judgment. Besides, no one is going to see this except for you.
This initial step should be a rough draft. There may be no “real story” yet.
Maybe you want to write about a man going on a road trip. Who are the main characters? You want a cute dog in it, a Golden Retriever even. Perhaps you want to set it in the 1960s. Maybe there are a few songs that are inspirational to you. Got an idea for a scene or two? Jot it down.
Write it all down. Get it down on paper or a simple document. Don’t worry about the formatting.
Step 2 – High-Level Sketch
You can’t outline from just one, vague idea. You need to know what each of the main characters is going to learn along the way. How are they going to change? What will your secondary, tertiary characters teach your protagonist?
In the second step, you’re looking to find the story from the mess we brain-dumped above. Here, let’s focus on the What and Why of your story.
Answer the following questions:
- What are the internal conflicts of your characters?
- What are the characters going to learn along the way?
- What is the basic premise of your story?
- What are some big ideas you want to explore through your characters?
Answer the following why-related questions:
- Why do your characters have their reasons for being part of the story?
- Why do you, the author, need to tell this story?
- For the key components from Step1, why are they important?
With your What and Whys laid out, write out a high-level sketch. This will include the characters, the plot, theme, and the journey. What will your main character undertake?
Step 3 – Three Act Structure
In this step, you’re going to break your high-level sketch into more refined story beats. This is known as the three-act structure.
This level of detail may be all the outlining you’ll need.
If you are like most writers, you probably want to start from the beginning of your story. While this may seem logical, from an outlining perspective it’s helpful to start from the middle.
The middle of your story is when your main character begins to believe your story’s premise more. At the start of the story, they’re on the opposite end of your premise. In the middle there is a turning point or game changer. What is it?
Change-based tropes are an excellent way to implement and find this turning point. Also, using a trope here is a good way to avoid mid-story lag. Thinking about this critical juncture ahead of time helps immensely. (To learn more about these tropes, check out Jennifer Hilt’s excellent book here.)
With the middle at hand, then ask yourself how the main character(s) got there. This will give you the beginning or the inciting incident and first plot point.
Again, from the middle, where do they go from the turning point? This will lead you toward the end. What dark moment or aha will they experience? What’s the climatic confrontation, and how will it be resolved?
Develop subplots and character arcs to add depth to your story. Use bullet points to outline important scenes and plot progression. Maintaining flexibility, while ensuring a cohesive narrative, will give you enough room to “discover” when it comes time for writing.
There you have it, three core acts.
This may be all you need, at least enough to get you going. However, some of us like to have a little more structure to help us bang out those word counts quicker.
The next step is optional.
Step 4 – Chapter Details (Optional)
Take your ideas from step 1, your high-level sketch from the second step, and your three-act structure from step 3 and merge them together to create a chapter-by-chapter outline.
This level of detail isn’t as restrictive as it may seem. Write a couple of sentences for each chapter. Or if chapter-level detail is too intimidating elaborate into subsections from your three acts.
The work you put in here will help you avoid writers block going forward.
Pantser Alert: You can keep these points very high-level, just enough to spur your creativity and not thwart discovery writing later on.
This doesn’t have to be difficult. It’s only as hard as you make it. The key is to not try for perfection.
You don’t have to get it right, just write.
Put your plot points onto scene cards and move them around.
Establish goals and conflicts for each notecard. Jot down any compelling hooks or cliffhangers that come to mind to help keep readers engaged.
The initial chapter or two should contain your hook.
The next, the inciting incident. Followed by the first plot point.
Keep in mind, these cards are for you—not to be read by others. You can be as specific or vague as you want. The objective is to give you enough information to get more creative when it comes time to write your manuscript.
Writer’s block happens when you don’t know what you need to write about. This process kicks that in the butt.
You now have a comprehensive understanding of a very simple, effective outlining process for your novel. One that’s not too loose and not too restrictive but just right.
Remember, outlining is a personal journey, and with this approach you can get as detailed as you want or leave it high-level. Discover what works best for you. With a decent outline in hand, you’ll have the foundation necessary to write with confidence and purpose. Happy writing!